'Yaoi Fangirls' by inukagome134
Comics, Feminist/Gender Theory, LGBTQ, Manga, Pop Culture

Does ‘Boys Love/Yaoi’ Manga Have A Gender And Sexuality Problem?

‘Boys Love’ manga presents gay men for the pleasure of straight women – so why does it represent both so badly?

[Contains spoilers for ‘Ten Count’ and ‘Raising a Bat’.]

In hit anime series, Ouran High School Host Club, twin brothers Kaoru and Hikari always make sure to treat their female guests at the titular club to quite a show of “brotherly love”.

For viewers popping their proverbial anime cherry, these scenes must be a bit of a culture shock. For those more familiar, it translates as both serving and gently mocking the shounen-ai (‘boys love’ or BL) genre; fulfilling its target audience’s expectations whilst cheekily representing them as easily manipulated girls with nothing better to do than fawn over bishounen (‘beautiful men’).

As a life-long otaku with a soft spot for said beautiful fictional men, I can’t say that I don’t see a little of myself in the squealing guests of the Host Club and niether do I see anything wrong with it. The level of eye-rolling that follows the success of things like Magic Mike or Fifty Shades of Grey or any other cultural product that caters unabashedly to female sexuality is getting pretty tedious.

Haruka from Free! getting out a pool

I mean, Free! doesn’t exactly owe it’s success to the big cross-section of anime and professional swimming fans does it? Source: Giphy.

At the same time, I also know that BL is a genre unfortunately beset with complicated problems in the way it represents gender and sexuality.

The fact that the majority of BL stories are created and read by women binds the genre in both positive and negative baggage. On the negative side, far too many stories that occupy this particular genre of storytelling promote unhealthy and harmfully unrealistic depictions of gay men through a female heteronormative gaze. This is especially true of ‘yaoi’ stories, a sub-genre of shounen-ai that features more sexually explicit content, and one in which gay men are even more in danger of being objectified and fetishized by this gaze.

Kuroneko Kareshi no Aishikata

A page from popular BL manga, Kuroneko Kareshi no Aishikata, by Ayane Ukyou.

There’s also, I’ve noticed, a perpetual conflict between BL character’s sexuality being unfairly dominant in defining their personality, yet strangely absent in their lifestyles. Even the out and proud BL characters who are doggedly obsessive in their romantic pursuit of other men hardly ever self-define – verbally or otherwise – their own sexual preference by name. More to the point, I have yet to see one of these characters to go a gay club or Pride parade. Instead, they always seem totally isolated from their own community – a community that is notoriously familial, IRL. In these tiny, pocket universes dedicated to man-on-man action, the ‘G’ word seems either be taboo or redundant.

If we go with the latter description, you could argue there’s something progressive in enjoying romance stories without ‘seeing’ gender. As Lin-Manuel Miranda poetically put it: “Love is love is love is love,” after all. But, when we’re talking about BL, we know that’s simply not the case. It’s right there in the name after all: boys love. And since heterosexual love stories are still a dime a dozen, there’s a kind of voyeur curiosity for the straight consumer attached to ones told from an LGBTQ perspective.

Regular couple, yaoi couple, yuri couple. I see no difference, love is love.

I wouldn’t ever use the word ‘regular’ to distinguish between heterosexual and homosexual relationships, but the right sentiment is there all the same. Source: Pinterest.

In fact, that ‘exotic’ aspect of BL’s appeal is also part of its fans’ defence of it. After all, so much of romantic fiction – particularly erotica like yaoi – operates within a realm of fantasy so great that their realism may as well be discussed alongside the The Lord of The Rings books. And as more women prefer to read erotic fiction rather than watch porn, thinking of BL in this context grants it more leeway to cater to women’s depoliticised fantasies of gay men rather than how they really are. It’s not a full exoneration as such, more of ‘reasonable doubt’ defence.

BL certainly contains some questionable depictions of gay men, but perhaps equally troubling is its representation – or often lack there of – women. This is also particularly strange for a genre that is so female-focussed from inception to readership. The literary world is still dominated by men and the comic book industry is no exception. For this reason alone, the space carved out by women in the Japanese market for shojo and shounen-ai decades ago was downright pioneering. Just read this extract from Mark MacWilliams’, Japanese Visual Culture: Explorations in the World of Manga and Anime, for further proof:

“The production of Japanese comics has always revolved around men – male artists, editors, and publishers – and they reacted to yaoi comics with revulsion, which caused a sensation. The mass media criticised such stories as decadent and degenerate, using hyperbole to characterise these kinds of stories as a “violation” of manga. However, this issue of homosexuality also stimulated the industry creatively. Today, one can find many successful female artists and editors in Japan. The continuing popularity of yaoi comics also suggested that Japanese women are not shocked by gay themes.”

Knowing this revolutionary history of the genre, it seems surprisingly counter-intuitive that so many BL stories are so misogynistic in their tone and representation of women. Female creators too often either vastly underrepresent their own gender, or cast them as antagonistic forces standing in the way of ‘true’ male love. The latter of which I found to be a particularly troubling aspect while reading Takari Rihito’s Ten Count manga – one of the highest selling BL manga in Japan since 2014.

Ten Count covers

Cover art from volumes 1& 2 of Ten Count by Takari Rihito.

Ten Count could best be described as the yaoi market’s version of Fifty Shades of Grey, which would make shy and inexperienced protagonist ‘Shirotani Tadaomi’ [pictured right, above] its ‘Anastasia Steele’. Shirotani has been plagued by misophobia (a psychological fear of being contaminated by dirt) for almost his entire life, which also inadvertently suppressed the truth of his own sexuality. Suppressed that is, until he meets a tall, dark and handsome doctor named Kurose [pictured left, above], who just happens to specialise in treating psychosomatic illnesses, and vows to cure Shirotani.

So far so yaoi, until it is revealed through flashback that the root of all Shirotani’s ails was… guess what? A woman! A woman by the name of Ueda, who – when Shirotani was a little boy – drove a wedge between him and his father (her school professor) by pursuing a sexual relationship with him. On one particularly traumatising occasion, Ueda tricks Shirotani into hiding in a closet while she has sex with his father. On the cusp of puberty, Shirotani feels confusingly aroused and tries to ‘relieve’ himself, which is the exact moment that Ueda pretends to discover him:

Shamed by Ueda, Shirotani desperately washes himself over and over again, unable to feel properly ‘clean’ after what happened. Subliminally, he starts to conflate arousal with dirtiness, becoming obsessively paranoid of any foreign contact from the outside world – especially human.

Equally troubling later on is Kurose’s treatment of Ueda in the present day, when – upon a chance encounter with him and Shirotani – Ueda antagonises Shirotani into storming out of the trio’s lunch date, and then tries to fruitlessly hit on Kurose. Kurose’s reaction to this unwanted attention is, um, well see for yourself:

Pages from 'Ten Count'

Ouch.

Obviously Ueda is not a supposed to be a warm, sympathetic character in the slightest, and every melodrama needs its moustache-twirling villain… but is the slut-shaming really necessary? And why does the only female character in the entire story have to be characterised as a man-eating sociopath? Considering that gay and female culture often go together like PB and J, this hostile ‘battle of the sexes’ trope is yet another negative aspect of the genre that is weirdly inconsistent with reality.

Look, the truth is: I criticise because I care. Ten Count is a deliciously guilty pleasure to read, which is why this blemish on its otherwise stellar quality riled me so much. As a feminist and a fangirl, I want the media I love to do a better job at serving its fans, which is why I’m going to end on a more positive note.

Raising A Bat (Bagjwi Sayug) is a Korean webcomic (or ‘manhwa’) that puts a supernatural twist on the problematic ‘seme‘/’uke‘ (dominant/submissive) relationship dynamic that most BL falls into. ‘Park Min Gyeom’ [pictured left, below] suffers from a rare blood disease called hemochromatosis, meaning his blood absorbs too much iron forcing him to regularly donate to keep healthy. This condition makes him the perfect source of food for his classmate, ‘Kim Chun Sam’ [pictured right, below] – a half-vampire. I guess you could call it the BL answer to Twilight. Interestingly, mangaka (creator) “Jade” refuses to let their dynamic fall into the standard ‘prey/predator’ one that you’d expect. Human Min Gyeom is in fact the one who calls the shots, deciding when and where vampire Chun Sam is allowed to feed off him, while Chun Sam – the burlier of the pair – falls into a more submissive role, visually evidenced by the cover art:

Cover art from 'Raising a Bat'

Cover art for Raising a Bat by “Jade”.

Abused and abandoned by his father, Min Gyeom has had to grow up far too quickly with his younger half-sister being his only source of genuine affection. He’s guarded, plucky and full of self-loathing. Chun Sam, on the other hand, was born to a rich and loving vampire/human family and babied by a watchful mother (who also served as his food source [insert Freudian analysis here]). He’s sensitive, naïve and painfully shy. Things get even more complicated when the two start to develop romantic feelings for each other, with their emotional baggage blocking them from being able to healthily express this.

Not only does Raising a Bat manage to subvert the troubling seme/uke trope in an unexpected way, it features a cast of positively represented women in supporting roles, and even a self-defining bisexual male character (Jung Won Hyung) whom Min Gyeom pursues a dysfunctional relationship with. Even better, when Jung Won betrays Min Gyeom’s trust by ‘forgetting’ to tell him he has a girlfriend on the side, “Jade” is clear in placing the blame squarely on Jung Won rather than make an enemy out of his girlfriend.

Page from 'Raising a Bat'

Uh-oh…

The drama all comes to a head when – homeless, rejected and hopelessly alone – Min Gyeom considers ending his life. Self-harm and suicide are also reoccurring themes in BL stories, often in the damaging context of glamourising abusive relationships. Yet, the strong writing and starkly minimalistic artwork of Raising a Bat make this moment one of real grit rather than cheap shock value. Especially when you take into account that suicide attempts are 4-6 times higher in LGBTQ youth than they are in straight youth, and 8 times higher in LGBTQ youth who come from “rejecting” families – as Min Gyeom does.

Min Gyeom's descent into depression is captured beautifully in his expressions.

“Jade” captures Min Gyeom’s descent into depression beautifully through his subtle changes of expression.

BL can be smutty, endearing, funny, poignant, trashy and fun. What it shouldn’t be is offensive, harmful or insulting to its subject matter or audience. Raising a Bat goes some way in raising the bar on what we should expect from BL, but there’s still a lot more ground to cover yet.


Header image by inukagome134.
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Anime, Feminist/Gender Theory, Manga, Pop Culture, Visual Cultural Theory

How The Female Gaze was Celebrated and Censored in Cardcaptor Sakura

Originally published for Bitch Flicks as part of their ‘Female Gaze’ theme week, 26th August 2015.


With their starry eyes, cutesy costumes, Barbie-esque features, and catchphrases overflowing with dreamy positivity, the magical girls of the shojo (girls) genre of anime might not seem like the most feminist of heroines upon cursory glance. Yet, the plucky sorceress’ of such cult classics as Sailor Moon can be seen as emblematic of a counter-movement of female action heroes in Japanese culture – the antidote to the hyper-masculinity of the shonen (boys) genre.

Sailor Moon female gaze anime manga iwantedwings

Sailor Moon from Sailor Moon

Goku Dragon Ball anime manga female gaze feminism iwantedwings

Goku from Dragon Ball

This assessment by no means disregards the problems of the magical girl genre – glorification of the traditionally ultra feminine, fetishisation and infantilisation. Shojo characters with their typically doe-eyed innocence can be easily corrupted to cater to a specific male fantasy of virginal femininity. However, the work of the all-female team of manga/anime creators known as ‘CLAMP’ not only combats these issues, but also, as Kathryn Hemmann in The Female Gaze in Contemporary Japanese Culture writes, “employs shojo for themselves and their own pleasure.”

I became a fan of CLAMP – like most people of my age – in the 1990s. As a child, my introduction to the wonderfully weird world of Japanese cartoons consisted of the standard diet for most children of that era: Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh! and Dragon Ball Z. Imported, dissected, re-dubbed, and re-packaged to suit the tastes of a western – and more specifically – male audience. But amongst the shouts of “Gotta Catch ‘Em All!” and “Kamehameha!” there was one show that really left a lasting impression on me. It was about a little girl gifted with great power through capturing and using magical ‘Clow’ cards. She wasn’t muscly; she wasn’t self-assured; and she certainly wasn’t male. She was Sakura Kinomoto, the show was called Cardcaptors (Cardcaptor Sakura in it’s original Japanese format), and it was my first exposure to both CLAMP and the magical girl or ‘mahou shoujo’ genre they helped to popularise.

CLAMP anime manga magical girls feminism female gaze iwantedwings

CLAMP at the Phoenix Anime Convention, 2006

Like most adolescent heroes, Sakura seems hopelessly ill-equipped to begin with, and yet her sheer determination to achieve her full potential sees her through to becoming a magical force to be reckoned with without ever surrendering her loving personality. Rather than conforming to the ‘strong female character’ stereotype that implies that women must act more masculine to achieve truly equal footing with male action heroes, Sakura’s power stems from traits considered more conventionally feminine: love, empathy, and pureness of heart. Even her wardrobe changes into unapologetically girly battle outfits aesthetically reinforce CLAMP’s refusal to bow to a male audiences’ preferences.

Cardcaptor Sakura anime manga female gaze feminism

Sakura’s signature battle outfit.

These themes of romance and friendship are a core part of the story development and instrumental in the viewer’s investment in the characters. Through Cardcaptor Sakura, CLAMP explores the complexities of both platonic and romantic female love – both heterosexual and homosexual – from an almost exclusively female perspective. In almost soap opera-esque melodrama, Sakura pines for her older brother’s best friend (who unbeknownst to her, is also his love interest) as Sakura’s best friend Tomoyo pines for her. Tomoyo, who lives a rich and sheltered life in a female-centric household, seems to live vicariously through Sakura. Upon discovering her secret heroics at night, she begins to capture Sakura’s adventures on camera and even provides her with her signature battle costumes, which cause Sakura huge embarrassment. Yet, at the risk of hurting her friend’s feelings, she grudgingly wears them anyway.

As the show develops, we are shown more and more just how deeply Tomoyo’s feelings run. In episode 11, Tomoyo gives Sakura a rare tour of her impressive mansion home, including a cinema room in which she confesses that she watches her recordings back of Sakura in battle constantly. It seems that Tomoyo is as much a part of the audience to Sakura’s life as we – the viewers – are. It also strikes me that this obsessive behaviour might translate entirely differently if Tomoyo were male.

Tomoyo Kero Cardcaptor Sakura anime manga female gaze feminism

Tomoyo and Kero-chan spy on Sakura.

Tomoyo’s idolisation of Sakura is far from veiled, and yet it is not revealed to be unmistakably romantic until Episode 40, in which Sakura must capture a Clow card that makes people dream about their hidden desires. Sakura, Tomoyo, Syaoran Li (Sakura’s rival and male love interest) and his cousin Meilin visit a fun fair. Sakura and Meilin team up to play a Whack-A-Mole game and Tomoyo – as usual – picks up her camera to film Sakura in action. Suddenly, the Clow card appears in the form of a glowing butterfly and lands on Tomoyo’s shoulder. Tomoyo falls into a dream sequence, in which we see her deepest desire play out through her eyes. On a pink background of falling cherry blossom, copies of Sakura dressed in Tomoyo’s outfits call her name and dance playfully around her. We are shown a shot of Tomoyo’s face – staring in awe at first, and then relax into a smile. ‘I’m so happy!’ she says to herself, and runs towards the dancing copies of Sakura – still filming.

It seems like an odd moment to be sexually awakened – watching your crush play a ‘Whack-A-Mole’ game at a fun fair – and perhaps if the show had been targeted at a more mixed audience (or the characters were older) this moment might have been filled with more obvious sexualised content. But through Tomoyo’s own eyes, CLAMP visually summarise the complex feelings of romance, admiration, obsession, and innocent love she feels for her best friend. Not only this, but as Sakura dances continually out of Tomoyo’s physical reach, the implication becomes one of wanting something you know you can never have. Tomoyo knows by now of Syaoran’s feelings for Sakura, and like a true friend, encourages their romance for the sake of Sakura’s happiness rather than her own.

This ‘doomed’ romance trap seems to be a family curse, as we discover in episode 10 that Tomoyo’s mother appeared to also be hopelessly in love with Sakura’s mother (who happens to also be her cousin). Similarly, Sakura’s mother didn’t return her cousin’s feelings as she was in love with an older man (Sakura’s father) in the same way that Sakura is attracted to Yukito – an older boy. Both mothers are absent from their lives – Sakura’s mother through death, and Tomoyo’s through continual business trips – yet their daughters seem fated to play out their romantic histories.

Tomoyo Sakura Cardcaptors anime manga female gaze feminism

Tomoyo invading Sakura’s personal space…

Suffering from a bout of nostalgia, I decided to revisit the show as an adult, first in it’s Americanised form, and then the original Japanese version to compare the differences. I was shocked to discover that in an effort to make the show fit the perceived needs of their rigidly defined demographic of young boys, the executives at Kids WB had hacked all elements of ‘toxic’ feminisation from it – romance, homosexuality, and the agency of Sakura has a protagonist (even her name is removed from the title) – dramatically reducing the series from 70 to just 39 episodes. In fact, if they had been able to “maximise” their cuts, the show would reportedly have run for merely 13 episodes. In other words, there was a concerted effort to twist the female gaze into a male one under the belief that CLAMP’s blend of hyper-femininity and action would be unappealing for the male audience it was being sold to. In Japanese Superheroes for Global Girls, Anne Allison quotes this from an executive from Mattel, “[…] In America, girls will watch male-oriented programming but boys won’t watch female-oriented shows; this makes a male superhero a better bet.”

Whilst moaning about all this to my partner recently, I asked him if he had watched the dubbed version of the show as a child. He said that he had, but didn’t realise until he was older that the show had probably been intended for girls. I asked him if he remembered being turned-off that the show’s hero was a little girl as opposed to the ultra-masculine characters of his favourite childhood anime, Dragon Ball Z. His answer totally undermines Mattel’s assumptions about the show’s gender appeal: “I thought Sakura was really cool. In fact, I loved her so much I begged my mum for roller-skates that Christmas so that I could skate around to be like her.” Even more affirming than this is the fact that whilst the dubbed version of the show ended up being cancelled, the original Japanese one ran to its intended conclusion; spawned two films; and inspired two spin-off series’ using the same characters – Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle and xxxHolic.

Tsubasa Resevoir Chronicles Clamp manga anime female gaze feminism

Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicles

xxxHolic Clamp manga anime female gaze feminism

xxxHolic

Sadly, by ‘butching’ Cardcaptor Sakura up to be squeezed into the TV schedule alongside Pokemon and Dragon Ball Z, western children were deprived of the tender and emotionally complex storytelling and character development behind all the magic and swordplay – and even from getting a satisfying ending to the show. It seems that whilst Japanese children are considered mature enough to deal with female superheroes, complex pre-pubescent emotions, and LGBTQ+ representation from a female perspective, western children are unfortunately not treated with the same respect or intelligence.


iwantedwings (aka Hannah) is a freelance writer, artist, anime-nerd, and Britney Spears apologist based in the UK.

 

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